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Reid on Obama, dialect and the (old) N-word

Obama, Reid
Obama, Reid

Controversy was sparked Monday over comments by Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, who, during the 2008 campaign, described President Obama as a “light-skinned” African-American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”

Obama accepts that Reid’s comments were not at all intended to be racist in nature. As the President eloquently explained, Reid’s words were simply “inartful language.”

The most damaging term of Reid’s phrase was certainly negro, a term too often used with a derogatory tone in decades past. Reid’s use of the term illustrates the effects past cultures can have on contemporary semantics.

Which term could Reid have used in the place of negro? African American English (AAE) is a social dialect described by linguists as being spoken by a large population of Americans of African descent. There are characteristics of AAE by which individuals identify this dialect most frequently used by black Americans.

The term AAE, therefore, carries no racist implications, but is meant to recognize by name this distinct North American dialect.

From a linguistic perspective, Reid’s comments illustrate that he is impressed by Obama’s oratorical skills, despite his not expressing it in artful ways. As Janet Holmes explains in An Introduction to Sociolinguistics, “The members of each community have their distinctive linguistic repertoires. In other words in every community there is a range of varieties from which people select according to the context in which they are communicating,” (pg. 7).

In a country as rich in diversity as is America, sliding from one repertoire to another is both natural and necessary to succeed in social communication. To this, the President of the United States is no exception.

President Obama is most assuredly talented beyond one repertoire. It isn’t difficult to imagine that, when not addressing the American people, just as Bush has certainly said “How y’all doin’,” to his family and friends, Obama has at some point uttered the phrase, “What’s kickin’, yo?!”


Holmes, Janet. An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. 2nd ed. Pearson Education. 2001. 


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